Ajanta unveiled

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It's difficult not to be moved by art historian and photographer Benoy Behl's passion for the past

Benoy K. Behl's collection of photographs of Ajanta is almost better than the real thing. In his book, "The Ajanta Caves - Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India", he gives you an exquisitely detailed reproduction of the Ajanta murals. Some of the Jataka stories are rendered as line drawings with a text to explain them, which you would never find when you are looking at them in a dark cave along with a hundred others. Where possible, there are intimate close-ups of the major figures in such a manner that you feel they are looking straight at you."I think it really changes you," reflects Behl in a hushed whisper as he speaks about the experience of taking the photographs of Ajanta. "Working on the murals had a profound effect on me. It opened a door through which I could enter the world in all its splendour. You can have a direct perception of what joy is all about." Or, as he writes in the introduction to a brochure on his work, "The purpose of these paintings is not merely decorative; they are seen as an essential part of life as well as the practice of religions. As in the Buddhist tradition, they are important aids for meditation, whereby the worshipper imbibes the qualities personified by the painted deity, and becomes the deity himself. The paintings are also an important record of the development in the religious and philosophic thought of their times." This sense of intense identification with the work, the images that Behl displays with all the awe and devotion of a monk unveiling the deepest secrets of the human is what has led him to lecture on the subject in every part of the world. In a sense, he is an evangelist of the ancient arts of India. He is never tired of saying during the course of his talk that whenever he has lectured to audiences in the West there has been "a unanimous response to the finest art of humanity." Behl speaks of the rules that were set down in the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottarra Purana, which as he writes in his introduction, "This was an oral tradition which was penned around the 5th Century A.D. It is the oldest treatise on painting in the world. According to the Chitrasutra, paintings are the greatest treasure of mankind, as they have a beneficial influence on the viewer... The purpose of this documentation was to preserve the legacy of the collective understanding of the finest minds." Behl seems to have taken it upon himself to continue the legacy, using both his slides, and transparencies and providing an oral commentary. At the lecture at the Museum Theatre, which was co-sponsored by the C. P. Arts Foundation, Behl was careful to insist that all the lights be completely shut, so that the effect of looking at the slides was like being in a darkened cave. However, whether it was a failure of the antique machinery of the Museum projector, or Behl's hushed and sibilant whisper, he seemed to make all the more obvious mistakes of the earnest speaker. For instance, he stood in front of the images making it difficult for people to see them. Though he claimed to be showing us rare and unique images, others like Madanjeet Singh in the field of Himalayan Art, Nachiappan in the case of the Brihadeshvara Temple at Thanjavur and George Michell in his book on the Art and Architecture of Southern India, not to mention, Dr. Job Thomas and his collection of Nayak paintings have done excellent work themselves. The Japanese have been documenting Alchi in Ladakh for many years. So, it is difficult to agree to his claim of being exclusive. However, what is certainly true is that his travels have led him to almost all of these places, including some rare murals that he has photographed at Pagan, in Myanmar. Most significant of all, according to Behl, is that the early Indian thinkers and artists were not seeking to project any one religion, or god, or kingly patron but to suggest the Advaitic idea of an all-encompassing creation that fills every being with its luminous essence. As a photo-evangelist of such diligence, it is difficult not to be moved by Benoy Behl's passion for the past.GEETA DOCTOR




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